Vibrant Wreckage: Salvation and New Materialism in <em>Moby-Dick</em> and <em>Ambient Parking Lot</em>

Vibrant Wreckage: Salvation and New Materialism in Moby-Dick and Ambient Parking Lot

by
Dale Enggass
2018-05-30

Instead of simply reviewing Vibrant Matter by Jane Bennett (Duke 2010), author Dale Enggass applies Bennett’s “Political Ecology of Things” to longstanding (and not yet resolved) themes of salvation, materialism and transcendence in Melville’s Moby-Dick and Pamela Lu’s Ambient Parking Lot.

I. Introduction

In a curious aside from A Thousand Plateaus, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, quoting D.H. Lawerence, claim that the “Anglo-American novel,” unlike its French counterpart, is concerned with the impetus to ” ‘get away, out!…To cross a horizon’ ” (186). Deleuze and Guattari allege, “From Hardy to Lawrence, from Melville to Miller, the same cry rings out: Go across, get out, break through, make a beeline, don’t get stuck on a point” –– thus, while the French novel dreams of “a still Catholic salvation,” the American novel “[draws] active lines of flight” (ibid.). The American novel’s emphasis on flight, escape, and cutting across territories – what Deleuze and Guattari refer to as “deterritorialization” – is particularly evident in Melville; however, again following Lawrence’s arguments in Classic Studies in American Literature, Deleuze and Guattari argue that Melville “mistook that crossing, that creative line, for an ‘impossible return,’ a return to the savages of Typee, for a way of staying an artist and hating life, of maintaining a nostalgia for the Home Country” (188). According to Lawrence, “Melville was, at the core, a mystic and idealist…And he stuck to his ideal guns. I abandon mine. I say let the old guns rot. Get new ones and shoot straight” (Thousand Plateaus 189. Italics in original). Under the sway of Lawrence’s swaggering wild-west rhetoric, and notably without reference to Melville’s most famous novel, Moby-Dick, Deleuze and Guattari offer a simplistic reading of Melville as, in the end, a transcendentalist.

In this essay I argue that Deleuze and Guattari’s own materialist philosophy contradicts their account of Melville. Indeed, this misreading of Melville is rather ironic given how the Deleuzean concept of the assemblage is, I contend, critical for understanding the heterogeneous form of Moby-Dick. While scholars such as Elizabeth Renker, in Strike Through the Mask, have shown how Melville is far from simply a transcendentalist, I want to extend this point to suggest that Moby-Dick not only anticipates some of the “new materialist” theories inspired by Deleuze and Guattari’s work, but also reveals how these theories fall short of their posthumanist mark. For instance, in Vibrant Matter Jane Bennett proposes that humans, rather than being the only, or the most significant, agents in the universe, are utterly intertwined with the nonhuman material world in a network of assemblages. Yet, in describing this flat ontology of the human and nonhuman, Bennett relies on the anthropocentric concept of vibrancy in a way that Melville, in his assemblage of ship, crew, and sea, ultimately does not. New materialism, which has achieved a rather prominent foothold in literary studies over the past decade, presents its posthumanist and anti-transcendental stance as a return to the physical universe that postructural theory, in its insistence on language and textuality, supposedly ignored. However, by placing Bennett, Lu, and Deleuze and Guattari in conversation with Moby-Dick, I hope to show how new materialism’s posthumanist rhetoric often belies a resurgent anthropocentrism. I detail this discrepancy through two central readings: of Moby-Dick as an idealist novel that continually discloses its material underpinnings; and, as a kind of foil, Pamela Lu’s 2011 novel Ambient Parking Lot. This latter text, which seems very much in sync with a posthumanist perspective, in fact foregrounds a model of human-centric agency, and – like Deleuze and Guattari’s French novels – dreams of salvation.

II. Smooth Space / Blank Face

The political theorist Jane Bennett describes her project in Vibrant Matter as an attempt to “enhance receptivity to the impersonal life that surrounds us and infuses us [and] generate a more subtle awareness of the complicated web of dissonant connections between bodies” (4). Bennett wants to “try, impossibly, to name the moment of independence (from subjectivity) possessed by things,” to find out “an active, earthy, not-quite-human capaciousness” that she labels “vibrant matter” (3). In her vital materialism, humans are not the privileged, central agents of events and change, but simply one “actant” among others both animate and inanimate. A term borrowed from Bruno Latour, actant designates “a source of action [that] can be human or not, or, most likely, a combination of both” (9). Bennett connects this power of things to be a source of action to Hent de Vries’ politico-theological concept of the “absolute,” the “intangible and imponderable recalcitrance” of things; an “outside” that always escapes full human understanding (qtd. in Bennett 3). Such an “outside,” is, in Bennett’s words, “an epistemological limit…it is from human thinking that the absolute has detached” (ibid.). Instead, Bennett gives priority to “things and what they can do,” the way “things do in fact affect other bodies, enhancing or weakening their power” (ibid.). Bennett’s premise, then, is ontological rather than epistemological: she is not interested in approaching a limit of transcendence in which one enters the outside, but in giving an account of the thingness of things –– their strange, vibrating presence.

Bennett hopes to “give voice to a vitality intrinsic to materiality, in the process absolving matter from its long history of attachment to automatism and mechanism” (3). Helpfully, Bennett traces the etymology of “absolute” to ab + solver, or “that which is loosened off and on the loose,” and reminds us that this is precisely what a priest does when he performs an absolution: “he is the vehicle of a divine agency that loosens sins from their attachment to a particular soul” (3). Thus absolved, things become “some-thing that is not an object of knowledge, that is detached and radically free from representation” –– a kind of blank (ibid.).

In Moby-Dick, the obvious figure of such an outside or absolute – radically unknowable, exceeding representation – is the White Whale itself. Famously invoked in both the novel and critical literature as a symbol for the Judeo-Christian God (de Vries’ theological model of the absolute), the whale is also an especially lively presence – or, rather, a disturbing vibration of presence and absence. In “The Battering-Ram,” Ishmael directs his reader, “Now, mark. Unerringly impelling this dead, impregnable, uninjurable wall, and this most buoyant thing within; there swims behind it all a mass of tremendous life, only to be adequately estimated as piled wood is––by the cord…Concentrations of potency everywhere lurking in this expansive monster” (268). Behind the seemingly dead façade of the whale’s massive brow (i.e., the “battering-ram” of the chapter title), Ishmael intuits “a mass of tremendous life,” “buoyant” and indomitable.

The whale’s “loosened off” status is made explicit in “Fast Fish and Loose-Fish,” in which Ishmael examines the legal arguments regarding when a whale is considered to be the possession of a particular whaling vessel. It is already clear by this chapter that Moby-Dick – the parsing of legal arguments aside – is and will remain a “loose-fish,” forever slipping away from Ahab and his crew. But Moby-Dick is a loose-fish in another sense that corresponds to Bennett’s deployment of the “absolute”: the whale is forever out of Ishmael’s grasp. Ishmael is a narrator who hopes to not only describe, but also comprehend, Moby-Dick. The whale, however, resists Ishmael’s various attempts to know him scientifically, mythologically, and even orthographically. The novel begins with an etymology of the word “whale,” “Supplied by a Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School.” An etymology is supposed to return us to a word’s source; here, however, the search for origins is undermined from the beginning, as our “source” for the etymology –– the lateconsumptive usher­ ­–– is completely inaccessible as he has been consumed from the inside.

The etymology is itself misleading, as it opens with an epigraph from Hackluyt that claims “the letter H…almost alone maketh up the signification of the word” whale (7). In the list that follows this pronouncement, only six of the thirteen words culled from a range of world languages actually contain the letter H. The Usher’s etymology does not bring us to its promised essence of the word “whale” – indeed, such an essence is shown to be non-existent. Even before the novel’s opening pages, the whale escapes the text à la lettre. But because of its absolute status, the whale acts as the catalyst for the ever-proliferating text of Moby-Dick.

In “The Fossil Whale,” Ishmael explains the necessity for his wide-ranging narrative, arguing, “Since I have undertaken to manhandle this Leviathan, it behooves me to approve myself omnisciently exhaustive in the enterprise” (349). Asserting that the whale “should only be treated of in imperial folio,” Ishmael details the telescoping scales in which he must present the whale:

not overlooking the minutest seminal germs of his blood, and spinning him out to the uttermost coil of his bowels…it now remains to magnify him in an archaeological, fossiliferous, and antediluvian point of view. Applied to any other creature than the Leviathan…such portly terms might justly be deemed unwarrantably grandiloquent. But when Leviathan is the text, the case is altered (ibid.).

Just as Ishmael’s rhetoric expands, so do his actual writing instruments: “Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand!” (ibid.). In rendering (literally breaking down) the Leviathan as text, the case – the size of the container – is altered. But Ishmael’s writing, and thus the narrative he pens and which we hold in our hands in its “imperial folio,” is not simply large; it displays a kind of plasticity: now zooming in to examine one particular feature, now expanding out “as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales…with all the revolving panoramas of empires on earth, and throughout the whole universe, not excluding its suburbs” (ibid.). Ishmael’s playful reference to “manhandl[ing] this Leviathan” points to his very real (and at least partially accomplished) desire to touch the whale, to have a haptic experience of the whale’s body.

Achieving this haptic experience requires a close reading of the whale that paradoxically makes the whale ungraspable. In “The Prairie,” Ishmael-as-“physiognomist” concludes, “The Sperm Whale is an anomalous creature. He has no proper nose” (273). For Ishmael, this lack of a nose is profoundly disorienting, “For you see no one point precisely; not one distinct feature is revealed; no nose, eyes, ears, or mouth; no face, he has none, proper” (274). The whale’s non-existent face is analogous to a disordered landscape lacking a “spire, copula, monument, or tower of some sort” to organize its surroundings (273). Ishmael, feeling his attempts at describing the whale to be all for naught, declares, “Physiognomy, like every other human science, is but a passing fable…I but put that brow before you. Read it if you can” (275).

Ishmael’s (and by extension the reader’s) inability to read this “brow,” along with the brow’s infamous whiteness, has typically been tied to an experience of the sublime. The whale’s whiteness is not that of transparency, but of a Burkean obscurity; and the creature’s size and strange liveliness present a kind of hybrid of the Kantian mathematical and dynamic sublime. But while this sublime quality has often been remarked, what has gotten less critical attention is Melville’s comparison of the whale’s head to the prairie. Specifically, the figure of the whale’s brow as a blank slate – providing the illusion of emptiness and suggesting an unreachable intentionality – parallels the contemporaneous discourse of westward expansion, in which the prairies and deserts of the American west were portrayed (often deliberately) as ghastly, empty wastelands.

To take just one example, in his famous travelogue The Oregon Trail, first published in 1849, just two years before Moby-Dick would appear, the historian Francis Parkman’s depictions of the terrain he traverses often register his anxiety about the indefinite quality of deserts and prairies. Parkman recalls “crossing the wide sterile basin called Goché’s Hole…[where] we had to pass a long line of bluffs, whose raw sides, wrought upon by rains and storms, were of a ghastly whiteness most oppressive to the sight” (293). Parkman’s adjectives (“sterile,” “raw,” “ghastly,” “oppressive”) reproduce the landscape as a horrifying absence and position Parkman as Ishmael’s “wretched infidel [who] gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him.” This “whiteness” is “oppressive”; that is, it presses itself upon, Parkman. Through a lack of familiar landmarks, a lack of depth, the prairie refuses to signify for Parkman.

In other words, Parkman’s prairie and Ishmael’s whale are both instances of smooth space. Deleuze and Guattari define a “smooth space” as the “object of a close vision…and the element of a haptic space (which may be as much visual or auditory as tactile)” (TP 493). For example, Deleuze and Guattari refer to Cézanne’s “need to no longer see the wheat field” when painting it, “to be too close to it, to lose oneself without landmarks in smooth space” (ibid. Italics in original). In their conception of a space of close vision, “orientations, landmarks, and linkages are in continuous variation; [haptic space] operates step by step. Examples are the desert, steppe, ice and sea” (ibid.). Moreover, Deleuze and Guattari elaborate, “Contrary to what is sometimes said, one never sees from a distance in a space of this kind, nor does one see it from a distance; one is never ‘in front of,’ any more than one is ‘in’ (one is ‘on’…) (ibid.). Moby-Dick creates a nexus of such spaces that resist attempts at organization: the ocean, in Ishmael’s experience, dissolves one’s bodily identity, while Ishmael analogizes the whale, in its uncanny whiteness or blankness, to both the arctic ice and the western prairie. Each of these smooth spaces, according to Deleuze and Guattari, seem to lack a perspective from which one could fully see (and thus in some sense master) the object of vision.

The effect of the whale, then, is not simply sublime. For both Kant and Burke, sublimity requires that one is not too close to the object one is viewing; the viewer must maintain a safe distance from that which provokes a feeling of the sublime –– a kind of happy medium neither too close nor too far that allows humans to experience their powers of reason (Kant 99). In contrast to the romantic presentation of sublimity that privileges distance and human reason, in Moby-Dick the whale is too close: Moby-Dick is an imminent threat to the crew of the Pequod and an object of Ishmael’s close vision. As Bennett suggests of her own “speculative onto-story” about things, “The tale hazards an account of materiality, even though it is both too alien and too close to see clearly and even though linguistic means prove inadequate to the task” (3-4). Thus, in “The Tail,” an exasperated Ishmael confides, “The more I consider this mighty tail, the more do I deplore my inability to express it” (296). With an obvious pun on his own mighty tale, Ishmael admits he is defeated by the tail of the whale, its “inexplicable,” “mystic gestures” that cannot be understood along purely human lines of communication (ibid.). Moby-Dick’s missing face, his smooth and uninterpretable expanse of whiteness, disrupts the potential for such communication, as, to paraphrase Deleuze and Guattari, it cuts across the “black hole, white wall diagram” that constitutes “faciality” (186). In other words, Ishmael cannot recognize the whale; whatever internality its gestures indicate remains hidden regardless of how much Ishmael magnifies them.

Ahab, like Ishmael, wants to “know” the whale, to understand the extent of its intentionality, to see it dissected. Unlike Ishmael, Ahab wants to see this accomplished not as a narrator seeking to describe and encompass the whale through a text, but as a monomaniac bent on revenge. Yet Ahab – himself an assemblage of human and nonhuman parts – also enters into a series of encounters with things whose potential agency and liveliness fascinate him. When Ahab first appears on the deck of the Pequod, Ishmael notes that “not a little of this overbearing grimness was owing to the barbaric white leg upon which he partly stood. It had previously come to me that this ivory leg had at sea been fashioned from the polished bone of the sperm whale’s jaw” (109). Ahab here is a correlate of Moby-Dick, his “barbaric white leg” echoing the whale’s ghastly blank brow. This white leg, we later learn, was fashioned from whalebone after Moby-Dick scythed off the original in a previous attack. Ahab appears as a composite of human and nonhuman parts, and as part-whale himself, he attributes a certain amount of indeterminate agency to Moby-Dick.

Responding to Starbuck’s incredulity over his insistence upon “vengeance on a dumb brute,” Ahab famously warns, “Hark ye yet again –– the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event––in the living act, the undoubted deed–– there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings (sic) of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask!” (139-40). Ahab’s frustration at not being able to reach the “unknown but still reasoning thing…behind the unreasoning mask” echoes Ishmael’s perplexed reiteration in “The Tail” that the whale has no face. At stake in both cases is the extent to which the whale possesses some kind of intentionality that could be extrapolated from its outward gestures. For Ishmael, this is largely an epistemological problem; for Ahab it is a matter of control and agency.

In his speech to Starbuck, Ahab compares himself to a prisoner who can only reach “outside…by thrusting through the wall,” and continues, “To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond….I see in [Moby-Dick] outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it” (140). The whale as both an outside and an inscrutable white wall (one version of “whale” without its H), again recalls Bennett’s trope of the “absolute,” the vitality of things that seem to stare back at us. Ahab asserts, “That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him” (ibid.). That is, whether the whale is a representative (agent) of a principal, or the principal itself, Ahab has to strike at its presumption to a kind of vitality that unseats humans from the top of the animal hierarchy.

If for Ishmael Moby-Dick becomes a kind of smooth space through the close vision its surface invites, for Ahab the whale requires striation precisely because it is nomadic. The whale must be contained but always evades capture, “guided,” so Ahab thinks to himself, “by some infallible instinct –– say, rather, secret intelligence from the Deity” (167). However, Ahab’s haste to explain away the whale’s insistent vitality through this appeal to a “Deity” and an anthropomorphizing investment of the whale with “malice” is increasingly undermined by the captain’s own entanglement in, and fascination with, things.

Just as the whale is potentially both principal and agent, Ahab himself begins to fissure: “[The crazy scheming Ahab] that had gone to his hammock, was not the agent that so caused him to burst from it in horror again. The latter was the eternal, living principle or soul in him…which sought escape from the scorching contiguity of the frantic thing” (169). The orthographic shift from the whale as “principal” to the “principle or soul” in Ahab would seem to reaffirm a uniquely human foundation for action. Yet the distinction between human and nonhuman continues to break down as this “frantic thing” in Ahab emerges as “a kind of self-assumed, independent being of its own. Nay, could live and burn, while the common vitality to which it was conjoined, fled horror-stricken from the unbidden and unfathered birth,” leaving Ahab “but a vacated thing, a formless somnambulistic being, a ray of living light, to be sure, but without an object to color, and therefore a blankness in itself” (170). The phrase “a blankness in itself” recalls Ishmael’s description of the “Whiteness of the Whale” just a few chapters before. There, Ishmael defines whiteness as “a visible absence of color…a colorless all-color of atheism from which we shrink” (165). Ahab assumes more and more the strange characteristics of blankness and an indeterminate, source-less vitality that the novel has used to define the whale. (Ahab even has an H in his name!)

As the hunt for Moby-Dick intensifies, Ahab has a series of encounters with things that emphasize his own increasingly thing-like status. In “The Carpenter,” Ahab asks the eponymous craftsman to make him a new whalebone leg, as his old leg is “no longer entirely trustworthy” (354). The carpenter himself is a kind of hybrid presence, “no duplicate” of common humanity, Ishmael assures the reader, and yet he is strangely thing-like: “[he] accounted [teeth] bits of ivory; heads he deemed but top-blocks; men themselves he lightly held for capstans.” “[He displays] a certain impersonal stolidity…[that so] shaded off into the surrounding infinite of things” (357). This sketch is at least partially an example of Melville’s typical humor in which the sailors on the Pequod become metonymic stand-ins for parts of the ship –– as is indicated in the names of crew members such as Stubb, Flask, and Starbuck. In this vein, Ahab boasts to the carpenter that he will “order a complete man after a desirable pattern,” this pattern being an impossible combination of things: “Imprimis, fifty feet high in his socks; then, chest modeled after the Thames tunnel; then, legs with roots to ‘em, to stay in one place… not heart at all, brass forehead… [and] a skylight on top of his head to illuminate inwards” (359). This strange aggregate of house, tunnel, giant statue, and tree is desirable presumably because it provides a kind of solidity and stability that Ahab feels increasingly slipping away.

However, it is also an excellent example of an assemblage as Bennett defines the term she takes from Deleuze and Guattari: “Assemblages are ad hoc groupings of diverse elements, of vibrant materials of all sorts” (Vibrant Matter 23). For Bennett, “assemblages are living, throbbing confederations that are able to function despite the persistent presence of energies that confound them from within” (23-4). Indeed, the text Moby-Dick is an assemblage consisting of first-person narrative, scientific and historical treatises on whaling and cetology, Shakespearian set-pieces, sermons, legal documents, epitaphs, etymologies, tissues of quotations, and passages from other accounts of whaling voyages. There is, to paraphrase Bennett by way of Deleuze and Guattari, a “certain ‘vagabond’ quality” to this novel and its diverse materials (Vibrant Matter 50). The text is often “confounded from within” by the ever-present yet ungraspable energy of the whale whose body and internal liveliness exceeds all textual approaches.

The Pequod also emerges as an assemblage in chapters such as “The Try-Works,” in which Ishmael describes the aftermath of the killing, dismembering, and rendering of a sperm whale: “the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived…the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into the blackness of darkness” (327). In such scenes the ship enters into an assemblage made of wind, sea, wood, cloth, blood, spermaceti, fire, and humans – and that final term is by no means the privileged position in this aggregate. The ship is driven just as much by the weather and the composition of its own materials as it is by the advances of human navigation, which are in turn dependent upon oddly vibrant things such as compasses and quadrants.

The humans onboard the Pequod seem driven more by inscrutable forces beyond their control than by their own agency or will. As the novel nears its final encounter with Moby-Dick, the ship and its crew is explicitly figured as an assemblage, a confederation in which, as Bennett writes, “humans and their intentions participate, but they are not the sole or always the most profound actant” (Vibrant Matter 37). Finally catching sight of Moby-Dick, Ahab declares, “This ship and I are two brave fellows” (414). But while Ahab anthropomorphizes, Ishmael’s description of the scene suggests a more complex interweaving of materials and intentions:

The wind that made great bellies of the sails, and rushed the vessel on arms invisible as irresistible; this seemed the symbol of that unseen agency which so enslaved them to the race. They were one man, not thirty. For as the one ship that held them all; though it was put together of all contrasting things –– oak, and maple, and pine wood; iron and pitch, and hemp –– yet all these ran into each other in the one concrete hull, which shot on its way…all the individualities of the crew, this man’s valor, that man’s fear; guilt and guiltlessness, all varieties were welded into oneness, and were directed to that fatal goal which Ahab their one lord and keel did point to.

The rigging lived. The mast-heads, like the tops of tall palms, were outspreadingly tufted with arms and legs (414-15).

True, Ahab is given pride of place here, but he is figured as more hull than human, and the syntax makes it unclear exactly where to locate the catalyst that propels the ship ahead. If anything, the wind seems to be the prime mover, but it only symbolizes “that unseen agency which so enslaved them to the race.” Melville’s metaphor comparing the crew to the ship, yet keeping ship and crew distinct, bleeds into a sense that the physical crew and the physical ship are not in fact dissociable. The Pequod is a temporary assemblage of animate and inanimate matter not reducible to any one determinate cause. Even Ahab, directly before the scene above, appears unsure about the source of his steely drive as he considers “what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it…commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing. Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it God, or who, that lifts this arm?” (406). Melville makes the vital materiality of the ship explicit in the wonderfully simple sentence “The rigging lived.” As the passage continues it becomes clear that Ishmael is describing the crew eagerly climbing the mast-heads to follow Moby-Dick. Still, the sentence’s initial sense of the riggings as vibrant matter lingers, particularly through the force of its placement at the beginning of the paragraph and its startling brevity following the long sentence binding ship and crew.

III. Surviving the Wreck

So far I have been writing as if there were something implicitly positive about the Pequod’s gradual emergence as an assemblage of human and nonhuman parts. After all, one of Bennett’s guiding assertions and assumptions in Vibrant Matter is “that encounters with lively matter can chasten…fantasies of human mastery” (122). But while Ishmael may indeed be chastened by his attempts to encompass the whale, the Pequod is heading along a clear path of destruction, and its status as a kind of assemblage does not prevent the crew from being reterritorialized under Ahab’s despotic regime. Deterritorializations and assemblages can chasten the human desire for mastery, but they can just as easily become means for that desire’s violent and destructive ends.

In the novel’s Epilogue, Ishmael, identifying the reason for a note after the destruction of the Pequod and its crew, explains, “Why then here does any one step forth? – Because one did survive the wreck” (427). The possibility that one could “survive the wreck,” the thought that one could be pulled from the debris and thus experience a kind of salvation, animates Pamela Lu’s Ambient Parking Lot. Lu’s novel is a sort of mockumentary of the lives and works of a music-collective interested in the ambient noise of mundane spaces like parking lots, freeways, fringe industrial zones and abandoned factories. “The Ambient Parkers,” as they call themselves, are thus drawn to the familiar, homogenous spaces of Twenty-First Century sprawl, seeking to capture on record the sound of traffic moving, a weedy lot sitting vacant, rush hour in the suburbs.

On a first pass, Ambient Parking Lot and Moby-Dick could hardly seem more different. And yet, The Parkers’ fascination with the products and residues of American material culture, which in their case ranges from the automobile and highway signs to “oil-slicked asphalt, [and] acres of grid-striped spaces” (Lu 3), aligns them not only with Bennett’s attention to what she calls “debris” (Vibrant Matter 4), but also with Melville’s concern with the “wreck” of industrialization and westward expansion. At the outset of her study, Bennett gives an account of a random grouping of such debris “in the grate over the storm drain to the Chesapeake Bay in front of Sam’s Bagels on Cold Spring Lane in Baltimore” (ibid.). Bennett uses these objects, which include “one large men’s plastic work glove”, “one unblemished dead rat” and “one white plastic bottle cap”, to demonstrate their vibrant status “– at one moment disclosing themselves as dead stuff and at the next as live presence” (4-5). Bennett’s presentational style when listing her artifacts corresponds to the Parkers’ short-lived “urbanist” phase, during which they explore the metropolis and, “Like synthetic geologists, [marvel] at the diverse materials in [their] environment: tempered glass, pneumatic rubbers, plastics in pastel colors…concrete barriers” (9-10). The Parkers, at least in their urbanist incarnation, “celebrate abject sites and degraded regions of geography” in a kind of ironic embrace of what the artist Robert Smithson might have called the urban desert.

However, the Parkers’ celebration of so-called degraded sites is quickly qualified as a version of the romantic veneration of ruins and other “waste” spaces: “Our romantic dystopian side was nurtured by visions of early evening light glancing off the conveyor bridges of a defunct vegetable cannery…We felt exalted by the edifying scenes of blight” (10-11). Their vital materialist leanings are doubly (and paradoxically) bound to a quest for authenticity and will: even in the homogeneity of suburban strip-mall culture, the Parkers insist upon the uniqueness of their local fast-food franchise, “filled with [their] unique burger joint memories,” and, at the same time, “[bemoan] the onslaught of neighborhood gentrification or global capitalism”– as if global capitalism and gentrification were somehow divisible (ibid.). For the Parkers, degraded sites and objects possess a romantic authenticity lacking in “global capitalism,” yet “global capitalism” creates unique experiences that gentrification effaces.

According to Bennett, the debris of contemporary urban life shows “in a visceral way how American materialism, which requires buying ever-increasing numbers of products in ever-shorter cycles, is antimateriality” because “the hyperconsumptive necessity of junking [commodities] to make room for new ones, conceals the vitality of matter” (5). Material culture, in order to continue to exist, must deny the materiality of things. Or, at the very least, forget that such materiality persists even after we throw something away. Unlike Lu’s ambient musicians, Bennett neither celebrates nor decries the existence of capitalist “debris,” but rather renews our awareness of the abiding material traces of our civilization.

Moby-Dick, too, is concerned with the waste and destruction inherent to modern, rapidly industrializing life. Spermaceti, as the analogy goes, was the Big Oil of its day, and whaling was a major industrial enterprise. In “The Try-Works,” Ishmael vividly describes the process of whaling that turns the Pequodinto a “fire-ship” and allows Ishmael to “better [see] the redness, the madness, the ghastliness of others” (327). Ishmael is often a transcendentalist voice of conscience in the novel, becoming aware of the destructive side of whaling while frequently shirking his duties onboard ship, opting instead to become “lost in the infinite series of the sea,” a familiar transcendental fusion with Nature. Indeed, the novel is largely a eulogy for the Platonic unities and federations Ishmael imagines to be possible.

But if Moby-Dick is concerned – however obliquely – with the striation of space and the destruction wrought by whaling and westward expansion, Ambient Parking Lot is actually set amidst the end products of that expansion: the endlessly developed, paved, and landscaped suburban west. The Parkers, in a 21st century echo of Ishmael, become fascinated with the leftovers of empire “not excluding its suburbs.” Lu’s text, however, is predominantly narrated in the first person plural, a choice that complicates even further the characters’ apparent yearning for an authentic experience. This narration is an impossible focalization through a “We” that recounts various phases of the group’s musical history. It would be easy to see this “we” as literalizing the Parker’s situation as a music “collective”; frequently, however, the plural narrative voice refers to strangely particularizing circumstances, as when “[a]n untimely fall from ill-fitted platform shoes brought our party career to an end” (45). Such moments encapsulate the text’s mixture of a detached narrative voice, a kind of breezy satire, and a propulsive series of events in which the Parkers constantly shift from style to style, from ideology to ideology, and yet seem to be going nowhere.

The oddly plural narrator, thus broadened, parodies the cliché of “the voice of a generation”: “The Ambient Parkers” are a stand-in for the “millennial” generation (which has also been called, in an orthographic inversion of Lu’s narrator, the “Me” generation). The text is thus a broadly comic attempt to itemize the typical, contradictory, and ever changing commitments and entanglements of twenty-somethings in the second decade of the 21st Century. The narrative’s propulsive movement serves to flatten affect, and in this flattening, major artistic breakthroughs are placed on the same level as made-for-Instagram cat encounters: “In the midst of a four-track sound collage, a handsome orange tabby approached us, but we resisted the urge to pet it more than once” (18). The Parker’s romanticism is thus one more phase, an always already clichéd expression of “the romance of the overlooked space,” of the quotidian revelation that “the sublime is often cloaked in the mundane” (32; 26).

Often, this romanticism is explicitly linked to car travel, as when the Parkers “[long] to join this motorized society” and immediately go “zoom[ing] toward the outlands, where drooping electrical wires traced patterns of drift and escape” (14). Deleuze and Gauttari’s characterization of the Anglo-American novel as enacting the imperative to “go out, get across” with which I opened this essay, often feels reduced, in Ambient Parking Lot,to a platitude about the “romance of the open road.” In their auto-biography, the Parkers seek deterritorialization: they desire “to reach the limit of absolute escape” (187). But the narrative “we” never reaches the requisite velocity – it just keeps rolling.

The momentum of this first-person-plural is interrupted twice. The first interruption is a long picaresque tale concerning a disk jockey’s travels in Asia, but the one I want to focus on here concerns a character the text calls an “automotive dancer” whose collaboration with The Ambient Parkers has important consequences. This dancer first appears as part of a performance of “experimental torture” (154) wherein a troupe of dancers embody victims trapped by various wreckage in the parking lot of an abandoned factory. This “automotive dancer” stages her performance “inside the wreckage of a crushed vehicle,” and enacts a twelve-plus hour ordeal in which she tries to reach her cell phone by “executing a series of muscular convulsions, emanating from the pit of her stomach and rippling upward” (23). After hours of struggle, the dancer tries to call for help “yet her appeals were rebuffed every time. A courteous prerecorded voice explained that, due to heavy network traffic, her call could not be completed at this time” (ibid.). The performance ends with the dancer slowly dying amidst the twisted metal as spectators turn away in horror.

This performance disturbs and entrances the Parkers, who note how “as she punched in the numbers, the space between her fingers, the phone, and the wreckage was filled in with ambience, a covert backdrop of collective amnesia and white noise impeding her efforts to secure voice contact with a savior” (ibid. italics in original). The Parkers claim that the dancer’s “motions of survival approach the sublime abstraction of art. Converted, we stood by in admiration…shooing away the philistines who threatened to revive her with the Jaws of Life” (ibid.). The religious diction isolates this scene as a moment of possible transcendence from the onrushing stream of the collective narration. The Parkers present the dancer’s staged death as a variation on the crucifixion scene in which an extended performance of torture is expected to yield a feeling of sublime admiration. The dance sparks a transformational experience that redeems (in all senses) the drama’s violence.

The Parkers turn away in horror, then, not because they witness the ordeal of a staged death, but because “what we had originally conceived as a larger-than-life experience was soon replaced with emptiness” (24). This sense of emptiness seems to stem from witnessing, “in the cosmic space of time between the onslaught of disaster and the reinstatement of the parking lot – the living performer become a thing” (24). While the Parkers want a transcendent experience, their ultimate fear is actually an experience of the nonhuman. The Parkers also seem to become aware – however briefly – of the violent, destructive bent inherent in the deterritorializations art makes possible.

In The Necropastoral, Joyelle McSweeney argues, “In our present moment, Violence is ambient…Violence and art are simultaneous to each other, shove into the same spaces, split open, devour each other and pour each other out” (182). The “ambience” that fills the space between the phone, the wreckage and the dancer’s fingers (italicized in Lu’s text as if to put pressure on its vibratory presence) is violent; it enacts an erasure of trauma, the “collective amnesia” that, in this social media age, jumps from one catastrophe to the next. Crucially, this performance comes on the heels of an unspecified economic collapse and a series of terrorist attacks that elicit “a flood of media images showing the impact of retaliatory airstrikes and a coordinated ground campaign on so-called enemy soil” (Lu 22). The dancers “mimicked the expressions of citizens trapped in the rubble of urban warfare” while the Parkers “played the role of embedded journalists” (ibid.). The performance is thus a reenactment of both a terrorist attack and the inevitable military response.

Invoking Jasbir Puar’s theory of the suicide bomber as a kind of artist, McSweeney contends that “Art has the same distribution channels as Violence,” thus, she “does not recognize a border between Art’s Violence and life’s” (182-3). Rather, Art is a kind of mimicry of violence that “alter[s] and denature[s] Violence”; art creates “assemblages and voids, links and holes” (ibid.). The overlap of violence and art is apparent near the end of Lu’s text when the dancer returns in the form of a Terry Gross-style radio interview that the Parkers happen to hear. Titled “Death of an Automotive Dancer,” the interview recounts her performance in the wrecked car and reveals the Parkers to be not quite as detached from the proceedings as their narration would suggest. The dancer recalls how during her performance the Parkers “began feeding me directions cautiously,” but soon “they began to operate from a rush of violent passion…They would command me to brush up against shards of glass or razor-sharp edges of plastic, pushing us all dangerously close to the exposed materials” (160). The Parkers’ increasingly bold prompts for the dancer are a reminder that the word “wreck” derives from the Old Norse verb reka, “to drive” (OED). The automobile-obsessed Parkers compel the dancer trapped in the wrecked car to the brink of real injury, and unwittingly reveal how both art and violence share a drive toward deterritorialization. Such a “drive” is no longer the romance of the open road but a death drive toward claustrophobic immobility, a melding of flesh and steel that explodes the illusion of a boundary between human and nature, nature and art.

And yet, “Death of an Automotive Dancer” reterritorializes on a narrative that rather conventionally privileges human will. At the end of her interview, the dancer – whose name, we learn, is Karen – confides that after the performance she spiraled into an abyss of depression and meaninglessness. After realizing, through a predictable epiphany, that she “never really left the car wreck at all” (174), Karen latches onto a mantra – “I am a performing artist, so perform” – and recounts how “[I] lifted, god help me, I lifted myself out of the wreck” (ibid.). The salvation that was promised but deferred by her performance is achieved, in the end, through rhetoric. The dispersed agency of the assemblage is here replaced by good-old-fashioned human will (with just a little bit of nondenominational faith for good measure). It is critical that this interview is presented over the radio (the medium of Voice), and that the dancer inspires the Parkers to “personalize” their music by adding a singer. In other words, at a certain level, Ambient Parking Lot opts for a familiar configuration of human-centered agency. It is critical, as well, that this emphasis occurs in a rare (for this text) first-person narrative. The “I” in the dancer’s narration ultimately functions as an antidote to the propulsive drive of the “We”; it is a device used to interrupt the impersonal flow of the generational Voice with a kind of pathos – a locus of personal experience.

The novel’s shunning of posthuman potential in favor of a human-centric perspective reflects a tendency also at the core of Bennett’s new materialism. After all, Bennett undertakes to show how even inanimate objects can show up as “live presence.” To be sure, Bennett admits to a certain amount of unavoidable anthropomorphism in her depiction of objects. However, at issue is not anthropomorphism so much as how the specific resonance of the term “vibrant,” in its close relation to vibrate, implies an animating force at work in Bennett’s gaze. Her argument invests the inanimate with a quivering, organic energy that connotes, if not the Human, then at least Life more generally. In other words, Bennett simultaneously ascribes agency to matter and resurrects the anthro / bio-centric rhetoric of anima. Bennett reanimates the inanimate.

Moby-Dick, by comparison, actually arrives at a rather nuanced model of materiality and agency. In contrast to the automotive dancer’s self-motivated movement, Ishmael is lifted from the wreck of the Pequod through the aleatory intervention of thing-power. “It so chanced,” Ishmael tells us, that “…I was he whom the Fates ordained to take the place of Ahab’s bowman” on the final day of the chase (427). Ishmael finds himself “on the margin” of the ship’s final destruction, “drawn towards the closing vortex…[t]ill, gaining that vital centre (sic), the black bubble upward burst; and now, liberated by reason of its cunning spring, and, owing to its great buoyancy, rising with great force, the coffin life-buoy shot lengthwise from the sea…and floated by my side” (ibid.). Despite his invocation of Fate and a “vital centre,” Ishmael is saved by buoyancy. And Queequeg’s coffin is buoyant not because it is vibrant or possessed of its own impetus, but rather because of its chance physical properties, the way it “[rises] with great force.” Perhaps appropriately, this coffin is an apt instance of matter de-centering the human: its serendipitous appearance saves Ishmael’s life while displacing any ultimate sense that he is the primary agent in that life. Ishmael floats out of his own text deterritorialized once again, loosened off – “another orphan” (427).

Works Cited

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2010.

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Trans. James Creed Meredith, ed. Nicholas Walker. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Lu, Pamela. Ambient Parking Lot. Chicago: Kenning Editions, 2011.

McSweeney, Joyelle. The Necropastoral: Poetry, Media, Occults. Ann Arbor, M.I.: The University of Michigan Press, 2015.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. Eds. Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford. New York: Norton, 2002.

Parkman, Francis. The Oregon Trail. Garden City, NY: International Collectors Library, 1945.

Renker, Elizabeth, Strike Through the Mask: Herman Melville and the Scene of Writing. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996.